Disruptive Innovation: Is This What Your Business Needs?

Among all the industry buzzwords in the past several years, perhaps none is as captivating and alluring as Disruptive Innovation. With the massive success of companies like Airbnb, Netflix, and Uber, the idea of market disruption and disruptive innovation has become more popular than ever.


But is it something worth pursuing for your business?


Disruptive innovation defined

Disruptive innovation is a type of innovation that deliberately goes against the status quo of how a product or service is offered in an existing market. Such innovations typically start small – often at the bottom of an existing market – and eventually work its way up to displace market leaders. Sometimes, if the innovation is remarkably different than what’s currently offered, it may even create a completely new market altogether. Whether or not this happens, however, its ideals remain the same: creating new value networks and providing new avenues for growth.

Coined by American scholar and Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation is a supremely exciting concept for many businesses, especially in today’s fast-paced technological world. And who could blame them? Any business would love to expand their market share and gain new customers.

Unfortunately, this is never as easy as it seems. Innovation is difficult enough to do. Disruptive innovation? Even tougher.


Separating the doers from the dreamers

There’s a reason why success stories of truly disruptive innovation are few and far in between: it’s simply not an easy thing to do. If it were, then it would undoubtedly be more common. So what exactly makes disruptive innovation so difficult?

First, it demands plenty of time and resources. Disruptive innovations don’t just come out of the blue and change the market. More often than not, it’s the result of intensive research and development. These innovations require a thorough analysis of the current market and meticulous identification of new ways to deliver a product or service. This takes tremendous amounts of time and resources to do properly.

Second, there’s a lot of risks involved. Going against the grain and opposing the established norms of any existing market is always daunting. Success is hardly ever guaranteed, especially in the early stages of development. Simply put, it takes courage and fierce commitment to pursue disruptive innovation all the way through its life cycle.

Third, it’s unpredictable. Just because you have a great new idea doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically succeed. There are always several other factors involved, and you’ll never be able to accurately predict the results at the end. Yes, you may be able to make forecasts and predictions of how your customers will respond to your product, but it’ll never a guarantee.


It’s difficult but not impossible

Disruptive innovation is indeed challenging, but it’s not impossible. The amazing thing about it is that once it takes hold in the market (or creates a new one), it tends to grow rapidly. This is why it’s so appealing to entrepreneurs and industry movers: as difficult (and costly) as disruptive innovation can be, it also has the tremendous potential of being a game-changer.

Airbnb, for example, may seem like any other well-established business today. But it’s still on its heels and fresh off revolutionising the accommodation industry. It primarily did this by introducing new suppliers in the market. Because its suppliers (i.e. private property owners) tended to be cheaper and simpler alternatives to what was currently in the market (i.e. hotels and similar accommodations), Airbnb was able to provided more choices to a bigger group of people. The result? These “smaller” choices are now competing directly with established market leaders, changing the way people consider their travel accommodations along the way.


Not every innovation is truly disruptive

It’s important to note that, strictly speaking, not every form of innovation is disruptive – at least according to the original definition by Christensen.

Disruptive innovation, for example, is not the same as “sustaining innovation”, which many often confuse it with. The latter involves improving a product or service in a way that significantly increases value. This often comes in the form of added features, higher-quality materials, or other similar upgrades. Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, involves offering the same product or service in a simple (and often cheaper) way, allowing more customers to access and use it.

This definition allows you to clearly differentiate disruptive innovation from other types of innovation, giving you a better idea of whether or not it’s applicable to your business and situation.


So what can you learn from disruptive innovations?

Developing a truly disruptive innovation is not for every business, and it’s certainly not something that can be applied to every situation. With that said, however, most businesses can still learn from it and apply the same principles that make it so powerful. Here are some of the best takeaways for your business:


Be different. Most consumers are drawn to disruptive innovations because they’re different from what’s currently offered on the market. Being different – whether in your operations or your products and services offered – will help your business stand out and attract the attention of your customers. If you do things right, this act of challenging the status quo can make all the difference in how well your business performs in the future.

Deeply understand your customers. One common mistake that most businesses make when developing disruptive products is trying to revolutionise the entire market from the get go. A better and more useful approach, however, is to study your customers thoroughly and match your products or services to what they really want and how they want to use it. That is, tailor your products to the needs and wants of your customers rather than forcing them to adopt something new or different.

Invest in research and development. There’s no way around the fact that creating something disruptive or innovative takes plenty of research and development. If you want to create something truly different (or at least something that makes an impact), you’ll have to put in the proper amount of investment in time and resources.

Keep it simple. Truly disruptive innovations make an impact because it’s simpler – and often cheaper – than the alternative. Although this may not always apply to every situation, the idea of keeping things simple is always recommended. Whenever you need inspiration for how to keep things simple in your products and services, just take a look at past disruptive innovators and learn how they’ve succeeded.

Ask “What if…?” Every game-changing idea in business started with someone asking this simple but powerful question. This question, more than anything else, is what can set you on the path of developing something truly different in your market. Ask yourself and your team this question, do it often, and see where you end up. Even if it doesn’t result in the creation of truly disruptive or revolutionary products, it can, at the very least, lead your business to several interesting places.


Disruptive innovation, disruptive, disruption. Although these words have recently become mere buzzwords than actual concepts, the ideas behind them have always remained true. Disruptive innovation or not, your business can certainly benefit from doing things differently from the rest, even if it doesn’t lead to anything world-changing in the end.